Breast Cancer’s Good News: More Women Are Surviving
We’ve come a long way since “breast cancer awareness” was introduced. Now cancer survivorship is a discipline.
In 1984, Breast Cancer Awareness Month was established on the heels of a pivotal statement made by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States:
“Without comprehensive breast cancer screening initiatives and increased regular screening for breast cancer, premature and overall mortality from breast cancer will rise markedly over time.”
It made an impact. Since then, the medical breast cancer community has made significant strides, including the fact that today more women are surviving breast cancer. In fact, right now the average 5-year survival rate for people with breast cancer is 90%. Many people live much longer than that.
According to the CDC, 65.3% of women age 40 and older are now getting mammograms, which is up significantly from around 28% in the late 1980s – and it’s been proven that these screenings have detected cancers earlier and enabled more women to survive breast cancer.
Back Then, We Didn’t Talk About Breast Cancer
Until that critical year, breast cancer was kept hidden in shadows and whispers. For the most part, it was seldom a topic of conversation. Social taboos were still very much in play when discussing a woman’s anatomy.
But we look back now and see the opportunity that was missed for so many years: educating more women, surviving breast cancer better, and making everyone aware. That became the mission of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and its supporters have continued to educate and promote breast cancer awareness ever since.
We Have Achieved A Lot of Successes in Breast Care
Because of increased awareness about risks, early detection, and treatment, more women are surviving breast cancer, remaining disease-free, and living longer, healthier lives. This is wonderful news, worthy of celebration.
Other improvements over the years include shifting away from hormone replacement therapy, which has been shown to increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Technological advances in mammography, as well as more comprehensive screening methods such as ultrasounds and MRIs are detecting breast cancers earlier, so more women are diagnosed in the early stages. Additionally, a better understanding of the role of genetics continues to show great promise in making sure more women survive breast cancer. And the tremendous success of activists in raising awareness and funds for research must be acknowledged.
A New Angle: Breast Cancer Survivorship
While we may not be any closer to finding the cure for breast cancer, many more women are surviving breast cancer, or living with it, even in the case of metastatic breast cancer. So one goal within the breast cancer community is to help them live with the disease — it has become its own field of study and emphasis, called cancer survivorship.
Survivorship generally has two meanings:
- Completing your prescribed course of treatment and having no further signs of cancer.
- Living with, through and beyond cancer. This means that survivorship starts at diagnosis. It can be a more positive way to think of the time you’re in treatment, and the time after.
Survivorship comes with a unique set of anxieties, of course. Just because more women are surviving breast cancer doesn’t mean that once they’ve finished with the acute diagnosis and treatment stages, they’re over it forever. Our article on support groups for breast cancer survivors may be helpful if you’re feeling anxious or alone.
Dr. Kenneth Miller is a medical oncologist and was a founder of the Supportive Care Program at the Yale Cancer Center. Aware of the fact that more women survive their breast cancers, he says, “It’s recognized that the treatment of breast cancer goes on for a few months, or a year, which is hopefully followed by survivorship. We need to emphasize the importance of ongoing surveillance. We need to be vigilant about looking for second cancers. Women also need to understand healthy survivorship in terms of exercise, nutrition and risk reduction.”
We remain hopeful that researchers and advocates will continue to make great progress in understanding and treating breast cancer, so that in the coming years, there won’t even be a question whether more women will survive breast cancer — survival will either be a given, or women won’t get the disease in the first place.